Does Branding Need To Be Rebranded?

Recently, Sir James Dyson, the founder of the Dyson Company and the inventor of sleek household appliances, said that he doesn’t believe in branding. “We’re only as good as our latest product,” Dyson said. “I don’t believe in brand at all.”

Like a cat coughing up a hairball, Dyson’s comment caused a loud, involuntary response from the advertising world. In Ad Age, the wave of feedback from Dyson’s comments was completely dismissive. Some claimed that Dyson didn’t understand what branding was, while others said that it was a canny attempt to get more attention for his products. One commenter even suggested that Dyson’s anti-branding stance was an effort to curry favor with Upper East Side intellectuals. Apparently, New Yorkers in that part of the city buy a lot of vacuum cleaners.

A few days later, Forbes published an article that continued to criticize Dyson. This time, it accused the knighted entrepreneur of being confused about what branding actually was. The author lectured that a brand is “really communities of people who share approximately the same values and like to feel they belong together.” This was odd because Ad Age’s readers, presumably also experts on branding, had other definitions for the term, including that a brand was “promise + delivery.” Another said that brand simply meant “reputation.”

All of these recriminations must have been a shock to Dyson, who has been able to build a successful global company despite a lack of faith in branding. Instead, he had focused on creating elegant products and then selling them at a profit. Once in a while Dyson would also narrate a stylish, 30-second product demo that would appear on television.

Interestingly, James Dyson isn’t the only one now questioning the idea of branding. Ford, who has been stamping its blue logo into the backs of eyeballs for decades, recently launched a series of ads without any branding at all. According to Ford strategists, their new cars are now so good that they didn’t feel the need to brand as aggressively as they have in the past.

And then there’s Nike. Having relied for years on mass branding messages like “Just do it,” the company has now dramatically scaled back its investment in traditional branding. Nike has also reduced its emphasis on big brand athletes like Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, and Lance Armstrong. Instead, the company has focused on creating software and gadgets like its new Fuel wristband that measures athletic output. Instead of marketing products, Nike is using products to market itself.

So are these all signs that traditional branding will eventually be obsolete, a relic of the 20th century? Perhaps the entire enterprise will turn out to have been an abstraction, a way of thinking about disparate activities that would have happened anyhow. Or perhaps, with consumers empowered by technology and overwhelmed by choice, branding doesn’t have the same effect on consumers that it used to.

For product-driven companies like Google, Facebook and Instagram, branding seems more and more beside the point. Venture capitalists are loath for their companies to make major investments in branding. They would prefer that a new consumer product build an audience naturally, in a way that is not influenced by outside forces. And so these companies focus on building great software and let the network effect take care of the rest.

But in more mature industries like consumer packaged goods and retail, traditional branding remains vital. And then there are companies like Go Daddy and GEICO that are still built through the brute force of branding.

However unlikely it may be, though, if more CEOs like James Dyson —  the end customers of branding, after all — reject it then marketers will need to change their language.

At that point branding itself will have been rebranded